Dawnie Walton’s first novel, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, is getting the kind of buzz writers dream about. It’s a Book of the Month selection for March; has been named one of the year’s most-anticipated books by Essence, Vogue, Elle, O, the Oprah Magazine, and others; and had its praises sung by best-selling authors Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kiley Reid, whose Such a Fun Age received a similar welcome in 2019.
Reid, who lives in Philadelphia, called it “lovely and lyrical; a warm and wonderful intersection between journalism and fiction.”
Opal & Nev (37 Ink/Simon & Schuster, $27), which will be published Tuesday, is a fictional oral history of a Black singer from Detroit and a white singer-songwriter from Britain who come together in the early 1970s to make groundbreaking music. Their story is compiled, decades later, by Sunny Shelton, a magazine editor with a painful tie to the iconic duo that she’s long kept a secret.
Walton, herself a former deputy managing editor at Essence magazine who’s also worked for Entertainment Weekly, Getty Images, and Life.com, spoke with The Inquirer about leaving behind journalism for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the inspiration she drew from Essence, and how an Oscar-winning documentary about backup singers provided the spark for the characters who became Opal and Nev.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
When did you first know you wanted to write fiction?
Ever since I was a kid, honestly. But I was always a very practical child. My family never put that on me, but I was always like, if I want to write, I need to be more professional about it. And the way to do that is to get into journalism. [But] the further you rise in journalism, the further away you get from actually writing.
I always tried to write short stories, but not in a serious way. In 2013, I was going through some changes in my personal life, and I had time to really invest in myself. And I started writing again. When I got the idea for this book, it compelled me in a way that nothing had before.
So it was this book that you wanted to write, rather than that you wanted to write a book?
Yeah, it was always this book.
What drew you to the story, and to the time period it draws us back to?
I was watching the  documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. It’s about backup singers who never really got their due. There was footage in it from the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. You see David Byrne, who I love, doing his weird thing at center stage, but then the frame expands, and you see these two Black women sort of to the left, and I was just very compelled by them, by their joy and their energy and their commitment to this really weird music. And I wanted to reach my hand in the screen, like literally, and pull one of them to center stage with David Byrne. The image just had me in its grip for a long time.
I’d grown up a young Black girl being drawn to music that at that time, in the ’90s, felt taboo for me to like, alternative rock, indie rock. Watching that concert footage was really the spark that got me asking a lot of what-if questions. What if two outwardly opposite people like this got famous together? What would it be that would put them in the spotlight? And how long would they be together? What would their music sound like and what would be the image they projected?
Sunny grew up in Philly. Do you have a connection to the city?
I visited a few times. I really like it. I love the idea of her being very close to New York, but still in this separate place.
You were a journalist for a long time. What’s it like to employ those techniques in fiction? Was it hard to cross the line into making things up, and as you do here, putting words into the mouths of real people?
I try not to worry about that too much in the writing process. I was trying to write things that, in some ways, made me laugh. Not things that are ha-ha funny, but things that are funny because they’re true, or that feel true. Like the meeting that Sunny has with her staff. There are so many characters in that scene that I was extrapolating and riffing from things I’ve experienced in magazine journalism. So that whole scene is sort of funny to me.
And then putting words into the mouths of real people, I guess it makes me a little bit nervous. But it was also, again, a thing that made me laugh, especially having worked in entertainment journalism. It was interesting to be pulling those things from my journalism career, because by that point, I had sort of moved on to something else. But I feel like there’s so much of that piece of me in this novel.
Was it always an oral history?
It was, yes. It was a format that I’ve always loved when Entertainment Weekly used to do it. And I thought it was a good way to like instantly have these people feel iconic, by putting it in that form. I’d also been a fan of oral histories. Live from New York, which is the one about Saturday Night Live, was a great one.
Did you find yourself researching your made-up facts more than someone who might not be used to fact-checking?
Probably so. But that was a really fun part of the process. I was constantly on Times Machine [the online archives of The New York Times], or looking at Billboard’s charts for 1971. I used to work at Life.com, and going back into those archives and looking at how different celebrities were written about was helpful when I was writing fake newspaper stories or magazine reviews.
What was it like to leave Essence to give fiction a shot?
Essence, it is an iconic brand. Black women will talk about this all the time. It was in my grandmother’s living room. When I was in college, my mother would cut out articles from Essence and mail them to me. It was really the pinnacle in a lot of ways of my [journalism] career. It’s also a brand that puts a lot of focus on Black women who are doing really inspirational things. So I was always surrounded by women who were, like, making their dreams come true. I think in some ways that energy did kind of rub off on me.
And so you applied for a MacDowell residency?
MacDowell changed my life. Because I went there at the top of my journalism career, but as an artist, I was completely green. I had no idea what it was to work as an artist, what it was to live day to day as an artist. And so I entered into this community of writers and composers and photographers and all these people who just taught me so much.
That’s where I found out you can get an MFA without having to pay for it if you can get into a competitive program. I did not know that. I decided about three weeks into my six-week residency that I needed more of this. I needed more focus time to work on this book, because I thought I really had something. And so I decided there that I was going to apply to graduate schools. It totally changed my mind-set. And made me dream bigger.
How important then was the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where you got your MFA, to your becoming a novelist?
I found community at Iowa with other writers, especially other Black writers and writers of color. I also got great feedback on the novel, which I workshopped there. Sunny was a character that did not exist before Iowa. People were telling me they were very curious about who was this person who was curating these histories.
And then of course, professionally, it doesn’t hurt to be coming out of that program in terms of making connections, finding an agent, all of those things.
On Tuesday, May 4, at 4:15 p.m. Dawnie Walton joins us for Inquirer LIVE to talk about her career and debut novel, “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.” Register today at Inquirer.com/DawnieEvent